‘Czech Tech Saving Lives’ - Inaugural Missing Maps hackathon for Czech Republic. A national first.

25 October 2019

How many more lives could be safeguarded if a missing mapper only had to click once on a building, rather than once in each corner? What if last month’s release of the Mapswipe 2.0 app could also directly send identified buildings straight to OSM? These were some of the challenges posed to hackers this weekend by organisers of the first ever czech Missing Maps Hackathon in Plszen, Czech Republic.

Hackers in ‘their dungeon’. The hackaton was hosted and catered for by local ITNGO in their building by the river, around the corner from the Pilsner Urquell brewery museum.

Introducing tech hackers to the way Missing Maps works is always fun. They quickly understand the idea that they can innovate, love OpenSource on the whole, and are active community members. But there are facts about our multifaceted community which aren’t so immediately obvious:

  • The amount of people in our Missing Maps family around the World (variously quoted as between 90 and 200 thousand) - people who all have more or less the same humanitarian agenda - developers as well as mappers.
  • The physical reality of the humanitarian impact - how digital activity of mapping translates so directly on the ground into the blood, sweat and tears of life-saving.
  • How we are all taking responsibility for this, more or less without an ‘all-knowing overseer’. And, although often fun, it is not a game.

Pilsen is the home of many famous technologies, and is quickly evolving into a stronghold of the digital revolution. 3000 developers are estimated to live in this small but beautiful city. From these, a small group of digital humanitarians gathered around some important technical problems, less in competition than collaboration, to see if they could make Open Source field and remote mapping easier. Czech Tech is big business here, and Hackathons often attract decent prizes, all-night red-eyed coding, and copious amounts of caffeine.

Some of the hackers turned up with some serious old-school hardware.

Food and drinks were wheeled out from the start by our host, the local ITNGO TechHeaven. The fact that the prizes for hacking were not financial, but of a ‘higher order’ (and not just the 24/7 beer!) did not diminish absolute commitment or fantastically high spirits. In the true ethos of the development community, shared ideas circulated, personal styles showed through in the usual hacker eccentric traditions, and strong friendships were made.

We had researched some impact-related field challenges from various sources, and groups of hackers gravitated towards problems which interested them. Effective operational groups formed and then bonded around these problem-solving projects.

And so the night began.

A mapathon dashboard for validators

The ‘Mapathon Dashboard’ was one such challenge which interested local hackers Adam, Michal and Matyas. Bad quality data can lead to misdirection in the field, but is also crucial for good advocacy, which can show local decision-makers that OSM is a rigorous process, upon which lives and decision liabilities can depend. Many of us are familiar with the CartOng Mapathon Dashboard, but what if we could see some kind of ‘live conversation’ taking place between good and bad data, involving and mentoring more mappers to validate and to up the quality of their original inputs?’

The CartOng mapathon dashboard.

By the end of the weekend, the dashboard had been re-coded to include a live-graph of validated data moment-by-moment, ways to interact validators with their mappers, and some other excellent new features to be proposed to its originators, Missing Maps partners CartOng.

The dashboard hacking team.

Village and Settlement growth awareness tool

A lot of work has been done on remote sensing for deforestation, drought and flood at low-resolution, but Jakub, Jan and David started building on algorithms from this kind of land-cover data, with an imagery analysis tool, detecting the circles and squares of new ‘shelters’ in unexpected areas, alerting us to previously unknown expanding population - areas of ‘new human activity’ where unexpected and rapid crisis-mapping is needed.

The village and settlement growth awareness tool hacking team.

The One-Click Wonder

There is an ever-increasing need for validation in mapathons, and the basic mapping of buildings is something which should take less time, enabling skilled mappers more time to validate and edit for mistakes/misalignments. One click is four times less than four.

Martin and Jiri tackled this one, which is set to be a ground-breaking change in mapping practice all over the world. Machine learning is all very well, but the human touch will arguably always be needed. And the validation process should be where we focus our remote-mapping time. After significant advances in ‘the dungeon’ over the weekend, it is now very nearly possible to click only once rather than four times on a building, potentially speeding-up mapping four times over.

The one-click wonder hacking team.

Field Data streamlining

ODK and Kobo are free smartphone apps which are used almost everywhere in the global humanitarian response, for easy, effective and accurate data which can be gathered by victims as well as responders in disaster situations. That this gives local communities a voice directly aligns with OSM ethos, but can we make the upload process faster for those already overwhelmed on the ground?

‘The Three Jans’ made significant inroads into a JOSM plugin which could load raw data directly from the field, to be processed simply and effectively, cleaned, validated and conventionalised for upload into OSM.

The field data streamlining hacking team.

Dog-tired but victorious, the results of the past 36 hours of tool-development were shared in presentations on Sunday morning at 10am. It was amazing to see the results of these - and so many other projects - taking shape, many of which were near completion. From day one, there were already murmurs of the next Hackathon event, and several members are right now continuing their work on these projects, despite the end of the Hackathon. Question is, are they still awake? Watch for the next Missing Maps MSF Czech Hackathon to find out….

by Rupert Allen